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Rest in Peace, Omar Sharif

OmarSharifZhivagoMovie star Omar Sharif has died. The actor, who was 83 years old, appeared in some of Hollywood’s most moving and grand motion pictures. Sharif made them more so.

Among his roles are the passenger ship’s captain in the terrorism-themed Juggernaut (1974), leading while balancing conflicting interests with an explosives expert played by Richard Harris. I think, too, of his blend of great potential and sadness as the daring entrepreneurial Jewish playboy—which nearly cost the Egyptian actor, reported to have converted from Greek Catholicism to Islam, his citizenship and career—in Funny Girl. From his role as the desert Arabian teaming against the Ottoman empire with Peter O’Toole’s title character in Lawrence of Arabia (1962) to his role as a Moslem Turk adopting a Jewish boy in Monsieur Ibrahim (2003), Sharif dominates the screen.

OmarSharifLawrenceofArabiaBut three movies capture his dark, sensually masculine and physical magnetism. In David Lean’s masterful Lawrence of Arabia, Sharif strides between measured and raw with his backswept black hair. As the title character in Lean’s epic Doctor Zhivago (1965), based on Boris Pasternak’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Russian novel, Sharif is gentle, intelligent and aristocratically civilized yet kindling with passion to write poetry, defy the Soviets and exact justice while falling in love with Lara (Julie Christie) during the Russian Revolution, always holding life as the highest standard—his is an unforgettable and powerful performance that precisely measures the impact in pictures of the incalculable toll of dictatorship on the man of ability. Doctor Zhivago is so mesmerizing, enchanting, and beautiful with its brilliant score by Maurice Jarre (which Sharif thought was too sentimental) and everlasting scenes of Moscow, Yuriatin and Varykino that it’s easy to overlook the scope and talent of Omar Sharif as the crippled man of the mind. Zhivago is Sharif’s best performance.

OmarSharifTYRRPerhaps my favorite role by Omar Sharif is as Davich, the peasant European revolutionary in screenwriter Terence Rattigan’s 1964 film, The Yellow Rolls-Royce. It is as the radical idealist opposite Ingrid Bergman (Casablanca) in the tense, explosive, inspiring final vignette—probably more relevant than ever—that Omar Sharif matches hard, physical allure with kind, intellectual depth. His intensity is irresistible but it is also challenging. Bergman’s aristocrat is at the audience’s sympathetic center and one can’t blame her reticence to engage his character’s cause. But he is the embodiment in Rattigan’s short, polished featurette of the man of reason and the man of action. As the unconquered radical, he is every inch the hero.

Sharif lived privately as a playboy by his own admission, though was also one of the world’s top bridge players, creating a regular newspaper feature and, during his remarkable career, he portrayed Genghis Khan, Czar Nicholas II, Marco Polo and Che Guevara. He also played Captain Nemo in The Mysterious Island (1973). Omar Sharif made the audience think in nearly every role. His death is a great loss.

Movie Review: Ant-Man

AntManPosterMarvel’s Ant-Man (opening on July 17) is good for what it is. These Marvel movies for Disney are comic book-based movies, and this resembles a classic comic book, with exaggerated lines and all, especially during the first half. It’s an original and tightly drawn plot about a thief’s redemption. With proper exposition, for a change, it’s as enjoyable as 2008’s Iron Man.

Things get fragmented, fast and predictable in the second half and this is not a young kid’s movie as scenes include profanity and disturbing deaths. But Ant-Man is a light movie about keeping perspective and it’s better than the recent Avengers picture. Look for Avenger Anthony Mackie (Black or White) and Marvel man Stan Lee.

The three main characters are Hank Pym (Michael Douglas, Last Vegas), his daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly, The Hurt Locker) and Paul Rudd (Admission) in the title role. Pym invents a way of miniaturizing man, his daughter may be in on the plans and Rudd’s ex-convict burglar Scott Lang is recruited to conduct a live experiment on assignment to stop the bald, swaggering villain (Corey Stoll, Ernest Hemingway in Midnight in Paris) that aims to make the worst of the new discovery. The conflict plays out in corporate boardrooms and laboratories.

Aside from father-daughter storytelling arcs and Pym’s reclamation of an invention which rightfully belongs to him—he explains that he “hid it from the world”—the plot is plain. Action moves at a steady clip when it’s engaged. Ant-Man’s deployment, based on Lang wearing a suit and applying thought and technology that makes him the size of the insect and able to be skillful, agile and fast in commandeering other ants, comes at the expense of Lang’s redemption, largely due to a trio of clownish criminal cohorts. With Michael Pena (Lions for Lambs) doing a version of a Joe Pesci character, lines and scenes are broad. But this is a movie called Ant-Man, after all. Cartoonish comes with the deal.

With his geek, gee-whiz persona, Rudd’s fine in the role and Lilly is very good at measuring her performance in what could have been a flat character (despite a wig or hairstyle that makes her look like a cross between Swing Out Sister’s lead singer and Lee Grant in Airport ’77). Lilly’s character bridges Ant-Man‘s gaps, which should have been filled by Rudd as Lang. Veteran Douglas gets more screen time than expected and he’s good, too. This is pure popcorn fare, really matinee material at best, with glimpses of a more daring movie in scenes such as Ant-Man literally emerging from a groove into an electronic dance music scene as mindless as an acid-tripping hippie and a military-industrial complex scenario out of Starship Troopers. Audiences that become animated over everything Avengers will probably rave on Ant-Man, too, which offers coherent, light, witty escapism.

Movie Review: Amy

AmyPosterThe story of Amy Winehouse, the “North London Jewish girl” who was a jazz singer before she became a pop star and spun out in a drug-induced death in 2011 at the age of 27, is well told in Amy, director Asif Kapadia’s heartbreaking documentary. A single human life is precious, indeed, and this is what makes Amy so powerful. Whatever the cynics and people who relish with contempt blaming those who destroy themselves, this 2-hour film stands as a testament against letting life go easily, cynically and without examination.

Here, in Winehouse’s own words, with unseen archival footage and unheard tracks, is her short life story. In the telling and showing, Kapadia captures a talented woman of her self-loathing generation who came of age and fame in the digital era when a media feeding frenzy could hasten one’s demise faster than, say, Princess Diana. If you primarily want to blame Elvis, Marilyn, Whitney and others such as Michael Jackson for their own deaths, don’t see Amy. If you want to see how an artist comes undone with help from today’s culture and understand how to intervene, mitigate and stop the selflessness, Amy, whether or not you’re a fan of her music, is as simple and accessible as its title suggests.

The seeds of talent and self-sacrifice were planted in the beginning, and this is documentary, not psychodrama, so definitive answers are not forthcoming. But fellow Brit and Londoner Kapadia, who was a casual fan and lived near Winehouse in the lowest days, is moved by the desire to know what happened. Amy is journalistic, with facts laid bare through research aligned with numerous audio interviews that took him three years to obtain and record.

Clearly, the young child of divorce, who went bad when she was nine years old by her account, was damaged and derailed early in life. She made bad choices. But she was also at the mercy of parents, who both survive her and participate in the film, who did not establish boundaries. Amy goes from her home movies to club footage and recording sessions—from self-made success in Camden to self-made disaster in Belgrade—and, in the pictures and what happens in them, one can see that the petite, big-haired, pierced and painted Winehouse was also sucked into the death spiral by today’s lowest parasites every time she seemed ready to go straight.

Amy is about Amy to the extent that’s possible. Whether showing her as a girl singing “Happy Birthday” and “Moon River” in the opening frames to her jazz lament about a man not acting like a man, her retro hit “Rehab” and later stylings by the guitarist, singer and songwriter, including works with rock, pop and rap acts, the evidence that she could create meaningful music is on full display. Kapadia thankfully offers lyrics and subtitles, too. Intermingled throughout her ascent to stardom is the sleazy lifestyle, which began as a daytime indulgence in marijuana and continued with a lifelong dependence on alcohol, sex and drugs, including those prescribed for her depression and heroin, crack cocaine and nicotine. Add what should be obvious in the form of her eating disorder (bulimia) and Amy is an inked up poison pill. As rapper Mos Def puts it “she was fast with a blue joke, could drink anyone under the table and she sure could roll a smoke. She was a sweetheart.”

In other words, Amy Winehouse was a fast-tracked, foul-mouthed time bomb that everyone from Mos Def (going by another name here) to her father and Tony Bennett kept kicking down the road trying to cash in on her fame, persona and success without accounting for the consequences. The exceptions were chiefly her manager, Nick, whom she fired, her childhood friends Juliette and Lauren, and, tellingly, at one point anyway, Lucian, a Universal Music Group recording industry executive who insisted that she sign a contract to keep clean and sober before booking her on the Grammys (she signed and delivered—both in sobriety and appearance). In and out of bad relationships and a stoner marriage and rehab, becoming a cartoonish joke with her garish cosmetics which became a self-fulfilling imprisonment of self-hate, Amy Winehouse finally dovetails talent and tragedy and goes for a final nosedive, bookended by her hero worship of Tony Bennett, who comes off as somewhat complicit despite his polished efforts. Bennett at least gets the artist right when he describes her as “a true, natural jazz singer.”

That she never really sought to heal herself cannot be escaped. Neither can the fact that she never really had a model, friend or proper intervention for the help an addict needs from those who love the addict when she’s sober. Amy’s life ended on July 23, 2011 with a blood alcohol level 45 times higher than normal. That this intelligent, bright-eyed, British artist called her old friend and flatmate Juliette with pure clarity and said over and over that she was “sorry” days before she died—with her downfall constantly ridiculed by sniveling comics such as George Lopez at the Grammys and Jay Leno—proves only that inside the self-destroyer remained that girl who could sing with soul. Whether any good comes from Amy is up to those who know someone they love who is as artful a dodger as London’s lost singer.

Amy reminded me of the first time I heard “Rehab” in a dive bar in Silver Lake, with its energetic Wall of Sound bursting forth with this fresh, smoky voice that also sang jazz, blues and standards. I wondered then what would become of one who is celebrated with snide parody for living the life she portrayed. Amy brings to mind audiences turning the other cheek to Robin Williams‘ obvious despair, the cacophony of cell phone cameras when Heath Ledger’s corpse came out on a New York City stretcher, and the endless taunting that people—sadly, intelligent people—do to flawed, damaged but talented celebrities such as Charlie Sheen, Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus and even to relatively unblemished artists such as Sam Smith. Amy revisits the short life of Amy Winehouse with honest, candid examination of facts and, through the words, pictures and lives of those she left behind, lets the awful truth speak, sing and be silent for what it is.

That the coarse, young modern female drank herself to death in a culture that now celebrates drunkenness and coarseness among young females may come as no shock. However, Amy, as its title suggests, urges the audience to never submit to coarseness and cynicism after the fact of a horrible, and stoppable, self-made death.

TV & DVD Review: The Marva Collins Story (1981)

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This December 1, 1981 CBS television movie starring Cicely Tyson (Roots, Sounder) as pioneering Chicago teacher Marva Collins, who died this week while in hospice care at the age of 78, is very good. The 100-minute Hallmark Hall of Fame movie, co-starring Morgan Freeman (The Dark Knight, An Unfinished Life, Last Vegas) as her husband, was filmed on location in Chicago.

Hers is an untold but grand and heroic story. The classical education teacher, who wrote several books about her essentially Socratic pedagogical and motivationally-driven method, focused on the individual in her teaching. As I wrote in 2009 (read the post here), she was passionately anti-deterministic and pro-free will in her approach to reaching a student’s mind. In short, Collins did not think poor, black students were destined to play basketball or languish in poverty, illiteracy and despair. She held to the idea that each individual has merit and potential and that the young must be nourished, taught and loved.

The Marva Collins Story dramatizes the initial part of her epic struggle to break free from being a government education worker in Chicago’s dreaded public school system and creating her own school in her own home, all while married to a man (Mr. Freeman) who loved her and mothering three children.

In scene after scene, the Chicago Public School teacher refused to settle for less than the best quality for her Garfield Park ghetto students. Collins taught the classics in literature, emphasizing key themes as lessons for living in poverty and achieving self-reliance. When the classroom is vandalized by thugs, leaving her homeroom deflated and demoralized, Collins, who dresses smartly and expects the same of her young elementary schoolers, singles out one child who asks why? for a warm, loving explanation that life is hard for those who are of superior ability. She basically tells the boy to expect to be envied by those who are jealous. This is a lesson well learned and well played by Ms. Tyson, one of the best actresses of her time.

The woman the kids call Mrs. Collins is remarkable in her steadfast dedication to demanding that the fundamentally bankrupt institution matches her ability to teach her students. Collins mutters about the “bureaucrats” and finally strikes out on her own, opening her own school, Westside Preparatory School. Attracting the most deeply victimized students in the government-controlled educational system, few rally behind her. She pleads for help in the form of sponsorship from Chicago-based businesses. She writes to the media. She seeks the proper government approval, which only frustrates her efforts more because the government’s arbitrary rules are in constant self-contradiction. In one scene, when a bureaucrat comments on her behind her back, Marva Collins swings back into action and puts him—and, really, the whole damned state-sponsored educational system—in its lowdown place. She is indefatigable.

But The Marva Collins Story is about her free enterprise, not merely her character. It dramatizes the painstaking process one must undertake to defy the traditional, the expected, the status quo, especially if you’re a lone, black woman from whom others irrationally expect less. Add the fact that even less is expected of poor, black students and there you have the mindset of the welfare state, which Marva Collins identifies, defies and puts to shame. That she lines up students one by one—a boy who is fascinated with flight, a girl who’s been told she’s mindless, other outcasts lost in government’s ghetto schools—and praises them with love and encouragement for their ability, not scorn and indifference to the use of their reasoning minds, is the point of her story. Marva Collins climaxes with an example in capitalism, as the children take a field trip which is earned, not used as an excuse to indulge sloth and mediocrity, when Mrs. Collins takes her Westside Preparatory pupils to the Chicago Mercantile Exchange.

Whatever flaws in her approach, which is sort of a catch-all immersion in the basics and classics, she is honest and straightforward about her limitations to parents, students and family. Her devotion to her task is rewarded with a visit from a newspaper reporter and an epilogue explains how she turned down an offer from President Reagan to serve as a government cabinet secretary (of a department he’d pledged to abolish, a promise he never did keep). Marva Collins’ story is exceptional for its vision, nerve and entrepreneurialism and, with a powerful rendering of Rudyard Kipling’s poem If—, The Marva Collins Story shows and tells what’s essentially heroic about her tale as it is and ought to be.


Rent or Buy The Marva Collins Story

 

Movie & DVD Review: On the Waterfront (1954)

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Redemption through testimony—an individual rising against the mob to exercise free speech and speak out—is the theme of Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront (1954), which deserves its reputation as a great motion picture. The movie, starring Academy Award-winning Marlon Brando and Eva Marie Saint in her Oscar-winning motion picture debut, is comparable in moral heft to Stanley Kramer’s Judgment at Nuremberg (1962), throwing out radical ideas, questions and challenges for the audience that grant no quarter to half measures, pragmatism and grayness. Everyone should see this film, based on Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper articles, and take the test it offers in this wholly absorbing drama.

Beginning with Leonard Bernstein’s somber musical score, On the Waterfront starts with a particular turning point in the life of Terry Malloy (Brando) who has chosen to become “a bum”. Something stirs within this shell of a man, an embittered New Jersey dockworker, when an act of evil with which he is complicit is executed to its logical conclusion—an innocent man is murdered by a gang of criminals—and, as with the East German Communist in The Lives of Others (2006), the guilty seeks absolution.

This Catholic notion, delivered in a secular sense with Catholicism standing in for morality, is encouraged by a decent priest (Karl Malden), opposed by Terry’s brother (Rod Steiger) and assaulted by the mob boss, Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb). Terry’s drive for moral cleansing is ignited, navigated and judged by the woman with whom he falls in love (Saint), a strong and innocent type.

Her name is Edie and she represents the good. The real villain in On the Waterfront is the public, the collective, the others. They—look for Pat Hingle, Nehemiah Persoff, Fred Gwynne, also Martin Balsam as a federal policeman—are the silent killers that sanction the rule of the mob. As Terry falls for Edie and learns how to love himself, really, it’s waterfront subculture, society at large, that governs and accepts or denies Terry’s redemption. The moral dilemma he faces is whether to submit to injustice or speak up and stand against the others.

This central conflict, dramatized throughout anti-Communist whistleblower Kazan’s pictures (Panic in the Streets, A Face in the Crowd, Gentleman’s Agreement, Man on a Tightrope, Viva Zapata!), is evident everywhere in On the Waterfront. Opposing ideas are peppered in anti-Communist whistleblower Budd Schulberg’s Oscar-winning screenplay: “Don’t say nothin’—keep quiet; you’ll live longer”—”You don’t ask no questions, you don’t answer no questions, unless you wanna wind up [dead]”—and, as Terry’s thug-tribalist brother puts it: “Don’t think about it—do it.”

On the Waterfront universalizes its narrowly defined setting with a physically brutal and exhaustive contest between reason and anti-reason. From an urge to “join the congregation” which in this case is a euphemism for submitting to rule by brute, tribal force to the priest’s pressing question “Who killed Joey?” as Brando’s Terry walks in, the mob’s blithely accepted ways and means come to fester in each part of the waterfront. The only consistent avenger besides Malden’s priest and Balsam’s lawman—who are both portrayed with deliberation as strictly limited in their effectiveness—is the initially murdered man’s sister, played by Saint, who is pivotal to grasping and granting Terry’s epic quest and request.

Saint’s Edie is intelligent, kind and able. Edie finds and sees the good in Terry—she is unafraid of the damaged and the dangerous—and she is like the deformed kitten she spares and adopts, willing to be different and stand out. When she first finds intimacy with the self-unmade boxer whom the audience later learns thinks he “coulda been a contender”, she welcomes him with total trust. Terry warns against Edie’s benevolence with the line that his philosophy of life is to do it to others before others do it to you. But Edie, a greedy young woman who insists that she wants “much, much, much more” than what’s offered by the Catholic Church, sees the man’s potential despite himself.

Kazan exploits their scenes beautifully, with pigeons fluttering and whistles blowing—and Malden’s Father Barry bracing Edie with the fact that life is hard and actions have impact—until Edie confronts with horror the truth of what’s been done and, finally, with blood spilling and death looming over the waterfront, Terry takes himself down to lift himself up, whatever consequences may come.

This is Terry’s story and Marlon Brando shines as the piece of meat torn between living for others and living for himself, if it’s not framed as such, using his feeble mind to move his muscle to really power up his mind for the first time—”It’s isn’t just brains. It’s how you use them”, someone says—inspired by an unconquered feminine idealist who dares to go against the conventions, notions and practices of the world in which she lives. When Edie tosses a drink back for the first time, to Terry it’s a dare to ditch his fake self and get right with himself.

Whether he does and what comes of it is what moves the movie’s action. On the Waterfront fully explores what it means to take, mold and re-shape one’s lesser self into a greater man (and what it means to love and have him). Elia Kazan, who by all accounts (including his own) lived by these themes, masterfully conveys and cashes in the everyday struggle to be one’s best—even if it means going up against the whole world—and coming out clean, honest and proud. Kazan’s On the Waterfront stands against the conformity that dominates mid-20th century America with a naturalistic snapshot of what one can do against the irrational. It is not as grand and operatic as audiences have been led to believe. On the Waterfront is small and intimate. Today, this great movie still inspires one to rise, fight and win.


The DVD 

A 12-minute conversation with Kazan is excellent. The one-hour documentary is also informative, though best viewed after seeing the movie. Other extras are also included in this edition.


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